Undeterred by the strong franc or high Swiss wages, a Romanian tech company creating powerful scanners for planes has chosen the small town of Saint-Imier in canton Bern as the site of its production and assembly plant.
The town of some 5,000 inhabitants nestled at the foot of one of the highest peaks in the Jura mountains is home to some of Swiss watchmaking’s biggest names, from Longines and Tag-Heuer to Blancpain, Chopard and Breitling. But Saint-Imier also hosts several companies active in precision machinery and microtechnology, and that network of expertise was a key factor in Micrea Tudor’s choice of location for his fledgling company.
Tudor, a two-time winner of Geneva’s International Exhibition for Inventions, is the brains behind the “Roboscan Aeria”, a portable scanner that can detect the presence of explosives, weapons, drugs or even micro fissures in civil and military aircraft in a matter of minutes. Over the next five years Tudor’s company, Tudor Scan Tech SA, will invest some CHF45 million in its new Saint-Imier factory and create 130 jobs.
The founder says most international civil aviation authorities have been impressed by his unique device and that it has strong commercial potential.
“We predict annual turnover will be more than €1.8 billion (CHF1.9 billion) in six years. And that’s the most conservative scenario,” Tudor tells swissinfo.ch.
Birth of a factory
That said, the planned factory is still under construction, and production operations, originally scheduled to start this autumn, will not begin until next summer. Work on the factory is nine months behind schedule, a fact that irritates John Todeschini. He has been head of the site since April.
“Airport authorities and airline companies have already placed large orders but unfortunately we cannot honour them,” says Todeschini.
Construction of the factory has been plagued by monitoring problems, misunderstandings and poor communication among stakeholders since the Saint-Imier site was chosen in September 2014.
But the Romanians’ confidence in their choice of Switzerland hasn’t wavered.
“Tudor Scan Tech has a long-term plan for Saint-Imier and all the planning has taken that into account,” Todeschini explains.
The plant will be the first in Switzerland to meet the Breeam ecological standard for infrastructure and building projects. With an impressive 1,500 square metres (16,000 square feet) of solar panels on the roof, it will produce more energy than it consumes. Large spaces will be outfitted for research and development to ensure that the operation keeps up with technology’s continuing evolution.
Swiss quality and neutrality
Before settling on Saint-Imier, the Romanian company viewed some 20 other potential sites, notably in Italy and Germany.
“I had often heard it said that Switzerland was too expensive, too difficult to access and too closed to foreigners,” comments Tudor. “But I was quickly seduced by the Swiss pragmatism and efficiency. For the kind of entrepreneur that I am, being used to the bureaucratic jungle and the government meddling in private businesses, it’s a dream.”
The “Swiss Made” label also tipped the balance in favour of Saint-Imier.
“Mr Tudor is hoping that the image of quality, but also of Swiss neutrality, will give his product an international credibility and that it will become a recognised standard by international aviation authorities,” says Jean-Philippe Devaux, head of economic promotion in canton Bern, who has been actively involved in Tudor Scan Tech’s move to Saint-Imier.
For Tudor, neither the strong franc nor high Swiss salaries are insurmountable obstacles. Nor are potential restrictions on hiring foreign workers that may flow from the acceptance of the initiative against mass immigration in February 2014. Tudor Scan Tech plans to hire mostly local workers who will be trained by Romanian specialists active in the scanning industry for more than 20 years.
“Market studies have shown that our clients prefer to pay a bit more and be certain that they have a quality product,” says Tudor.
As with the acquisition of Swiss companies by Chinese investors, the arrival of Tudor Scan Tech in Saint-Imier shows how attractive Swiss expertise and capability in advanced technologies can be for emerging countries. Finding new avenues of growth by adding value has become a necessity for many foreign companies looking to move upmarket. And it benefits the local economy immensely, says Devaux, by diversifying production in the area.
“Producing scanners for planes is a typical example of this diversification, at a time when Swiss watchmaking is experiencing difficulties and international competition to attract advanced technology companies is raging.”
A unique scanner
Dubbed “Roboscan Aeria”, Tudor Scan Tech’s plane scanner can detect explosives, contraband products or micro fissures in civil and military aircraft.
Housed in a container loaded onto a truck, the system can scan an aircraft in two minutes, thanks to its mobile arm. It currently takes several hours to search the numerous empty spaces in planes.
Tudor Scan Tech is part of MB Telecom, a technology company established 20 years ago in Bucharest. Its founder, Mircea Tudor, last year entered the rankings of the 300 richest people in Switzerland. Bilan magazine estimates his fortune at between CHF100 and CHF200 million.
Translated from French by Sophie Douez, swissinfo.ch